Taylor: Understanding what it’s like to grow old

"I now understand that when you're tired at 85 and more, it's altogether different from being tired at 75," Sally Stoddard

Aging is not uniform. In her book The Gift of Years, author Joan Chittister divides the elderly into two groups. The young-old, 65-75, are burdened more by stereotypes than by disability. The old-old are 75-plus.

Chittister doesn’t deal much with them—she’s not there yet—but my friend Sally Stoddard did, in an essay she wrote earlier this year. Sally calls herself “a retired everything: housewife, author, university teacher, art photographer.” She and her husband both taught at the school in north India I once attended.

I reproduce parts of Sally’s essay here, with her permission.

•••

Growing old-old at almost 87 is a shock. Indeed, I had no plans to reach this age.

My dad tried to warn me. In his last years—he lived to be 90—he’d walk down the hall and drop heavily onto the couch. “Hoo, boy,” he’d say, “Growing old isn’t for sissies!”

I thought he was just being clever, but now I know he meant it. How do I know? Because now I am old-old, and I agree with him completely.

As I watched him go through the process of winding down his life, I understood very little of what he was experiencing. “Well, why can’t you go to Thanksgiving in Jefferson?” one of us would say. “Jefferson’s only 30 miles away and you’ve got all next week to rest up.”

I now understand that when you’re tired at 85 and more, it’s altogether different from being tired at 75.

I’ve already done many of the things I might do, so they seem less important. I’ve seen temples and churches large and small; I’ve seen mountains large and small; I’ve seen towns and villages large and small. While there may be a special temple that would satisfy my desire to learn more about the world, I know I will never see them all. The question is: Am I at the point where I can be content with what I’ve already experienced?

Apparently I am.

Being old-old means being physically less able to do what in earlier years I would have agreed to do on a moment’s notice. I’ve been to 13,000 feet in Nepal and Tibet, and I know what it takes and how exhilarating it feels. It requires more stamina than I now have—and more acute balance. In fact, I have developed a habit of falling on perfectly level ground. What would I do now on Himalayan heights, or even in the Black Hills?

The builders of famous monuments never thought of us old-olds when they laid the steps at the Parthenon in Greece and the Potala Palace in Tibet. Those ancient steps are now too difficult to navigate because I can’t negotiate their uneven heights, even if I weren’t short of breath climbing them.

No, I never expected to live this long. With my 90s just a few short years away, I wonder how I should spend whatever time I have left.

What is possible—what can I plan on—given my ever more limited mental and physical capacity? It would be fun to write another book. But what if I start and the Essential Tremors in my hands make typing impossible, or my macular degeneration causes my eyesight to fail? Would I be upset if it were left unfinished?

Who knows? I only know that becoming old-old is my new reality, one which I had not planned on, and I must learn to live with it.